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JPC on chopper scandal

- 30-member panel set up amid Opposition protests, Jaitley terms it a ‘facade’

New Delhi, Feb. 27: Amid an uproar and walkout by Opposition parties, the government today pushed through Rajya Sabha a decision to constitute a joint parliamentary committee to look into allegations of kickbacks in the Rs 3,550-crore AgustaWestland contract for 12 VVIP helicopters.

In an uncanny rerun of the making of the JPC that went into the Bofors deal in which a payoff of Rs 64 crore was alleged in 1987, this time too the Opposition decided to boycott the panel.

The JPC that went into the Bofors payoffs was headed by B. Shankaranand and comprised mostly members of the ruling Congress and its allies.

Rajya Sabha Opposition leader Arun Jaitley articulated the reason for the walkout: a JPC would not have adequate investigative and enforcement powers.

In Parliament today, most Opposition parties demanded a Supreme Court-monitored probe by the CBI into the bribery case being investigated in Italy.

Jaitley, supported by ally Janata Dal (United), even challenged the government to have a JPC constituted under the leadership of an Opposition MP.

He termed the JPC a “facade” and demanded registration of an FIR, tracking of the money trail and interrogation and arrests if the government wanted to “get to the truth”.

Defence minister A.K. Antony was emphatic that he would go after the middlemen but was barely able to refute Jaitley’s charge that he took so much time ordering an investigation that the culprits may have covered their tracks.

The BJP had called for a discussion in the upper House on the euro 51-million kickbacks in the VVIP helicopter deal that was initiated in 1999 during the NDA regime.

Antony and parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath, however, had their arguments ready in favour of the government decision. Antony said the CBI was conducting an inquiry here while the Italian government was conducting an investigation into the kickbacks.

After the BJP had walked out in protest, Nath said those who did so were the same NDA allies who had not let Parliament function by demanding a JPC on the 2G scandal.

The resolution to constitute the 30-member (10 from the Rajya Sabha) panel was passed by voice vote in the absence of the BJP and allies, Trinamul, Left parties, AIADMK, Asom Gana Parishad, Biju Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam Party.

Earlier, participating in the debate, Trinamul MP Sukhendu Sekhar Roy asked Antony to resign, citing Lal Bahadur Shastri’s resignation as railway minister after a rail mishap in 1956.

Incidentally, CPM MP T.K. Rangarajan, who wanted a Supreme Court-monitored CBI probe, has been included in the JPC.

Samajwadi and BSP members, who support the UPA, tempered their criticism and voted in favour.

Accused of delay in investigations, Antony said the Italian government had refused to share information on its “secret investigations”.

He told the Opposition that at every stage of the procurement of the helicopters, “procedures were followed”. He said a show-cause notice had been sent to AgustaWestland.

“They have denied the whole thing,” Antony told the Rajya Sabha.

Jaitley later argued that the question was of arresting the bribe-takers in India who could be “those who swing the decisions”.

The CBI has named former Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi and nearly a dozen others in its preliminary enquiry.

SC petition

The Supreme Court has agreed to take up on Friday a PIL seeking a probe by a special investigation team (SIT) into the VVIP chopper deal. The petitioner, advocate Manohar Lal Sharma, today claimed he had in his possession the chargesheet filed by the Italian authorities against various persons in a local court and other related documents. He asked for an early hearing.